After several hours in buses and taxis I hiked out through the forest at 10,000 ft (3,050m) to find the Monarch Butterflies in their colony. I waited for 2 hours in the cold for sunlight to hit las mariposas so they could warm up enough and finally fly free all around me. Seeing the sunlight hit the 100s of thousands of butterflies in the trees was magical to witness. As the light hit them they would flutter, flutter and flutter until they felt they were warm enough to fly free. My eyes watered the first time those rays of light warmed them up…it is what kept me waiting 2 hours to see it again and again on repeat. What a journey it was for me to get there, I can only imagine these small, fragile yet incredible mariposas doing it (they weigh a gram)!
This was not my first trip to Mexico but the experience of the Monarch Butterfly Migration is worth writing about so I present you with my first blog for Mexico!
It was a wild adventure to see the Mariposas Monarcas (Monarch Butterflies) Migration in the high altitude mountains of Mexico (10,000 ft). It was years in the making and I finally did it for my birthday this year (2023). It was a trip that felt literally like I was the butterfly doing it´s annual migration from Seattle, the Pacific Northwest and/or Canada to Mexico since getting there was nothing easy. Although I´ll be honest it could have been easier but instead I had to make things hard and a bit wild so that of course the story would be worthy of telling later. HA! The migration itself done by these butterflies is worth telling so I´ll start there first.
Every year at the end of summer, Monarch Butterflies from East of the Rockies fly some 3,000 miles to Mexico to pretty much hibernate in the Oyanel Fir Trees high up in the S-SW facing Mexican mountains. It is a wild journey that takes over 60 days or so with butterflies traveling between 50-100 miles a day. The crazy thing is these butterflies go to the same place every year without ever having been before! During those 60 days many die while others butterflies are born. This is mainly because butterflies live on average about 2-6 weeks.
Therefore, every migration is a new generation of butterfly; none of the original travelers from the last season will return, and the new butterflies have never been to the Mexican mountains before. Yet the new generation of butterflies still know where to go because previous generations of the Monarch Butterfly have been there. These previous generations that don´t make the Northern migration generally die because of cold weather or get eaten by birds, etc but those that die leave their wings which act as a honing beacon for the future butterflies on the journey home. It is like a magnetic pull that drives these butterflies to this location in the mountains in the State of Michoacan in Mexico (right next to the State of Mexico, where Mexico City holds it down). In addition, it is believed that the sun also provides the butterflies aide to help them navigate South.
Now, not all Monarchs migrate and not all migrate to Mexico. Monarch Butterflies West of the Rockies tend to migrate to the California Coast (max of 2,000 mile migration) while the Central and South American Monarch´s do not migrate at all. Monarch´s who do migrate to Mexico though are the largest population. Keep in mind, Australia, India and some Pacific Islands also have these mariposas monarcas but unlike the North American ones they do not migrate.
The butterflies in Michoacan mean a lot to the local population. The butterflies arrive around the same time as this region celebrates Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead which is a huge celebration in this region (early November). For the people here the arrival coincides interestingly enough as they are going to visit and celebrate their long lost loved ones therefore the mariposas are said to the the ¨alma de los muertos¨ or ¨soul of the dead¨. Monarch Butterflies are therefore considered sacred spirits and locals guide them home, being silent to hear the flutter of their wings (a message from past loved ones). This is likely why when you visit them in the forest they ask you to be quiet and you hear guides shushing to remind you to be respectful. Spanish reading
You can find the Monarch´s in Mexico from November to March. The better times to visit are on the tail ends of that time frame because winter does make it a harsh environment with snow and such. They can survive up to 15F/-9C degrees for a period of time but they need about 25% sunlight in order to move. Around 55F/13C degrees will allow a butterfly to move it´s muscles. Hence why on a cloudy day they may move but may not go far…I had one land on my head and it never got warm enough fly off. Days that are cloudy will cause low probability that they open their wings and become airborne unless the sun peaks through for a long enough gap. Basically if you go when it is too cold or too cloudy you might only see the mass colony weighing down the branches of the Oyanel Fir Trees in big brown gobs instead of branches illuminating with a rush of orange or thousands of orange with black Monarch Butterflies taking over the sky around you. More information here.
What surprised me about the Monarchs in Mexico was their size, they were massive here, way bigger than I´ve ever seen in the US in the summer months! Turns out the butterflies who migrate South for winter actually live longer because they hibernate…perhaps this is why they are so big!
Over the last several years I´d read that the Monarch population has been impacted and that numbers were down but this year it turns out was a bit of a come back for some areas. In the west over 100,000 more butterflies came to California…something like a total of 335,479 Monarch Butterflies in 2023. This is still down from the 1.2 million visiting butterflies recorded in 1997….holy mariposa! While in Mexico they reported lower numbers…but they count by acres of butterflies instead.
News on Western Migration more
News on Eastern Migration (in Spanish, 2023) More
This trip to see the Monarch´s has been on my list forever and it was completely worth the wild adventure I made it out to be lol.
I choose Santuario de Sierra Chincua because it seemed to be more natural. Rosario I read has paved paths to see the mariposas which might be better for some visitors but I believe it also receives double the visitors because it is a tad easier to reach being right outside the town of Ocampo (same road up to Agangueo). There is also a spot to see within the State of Mexico called Valle del Bravo but I think less butterflies are present here and it may be harder to reach.
The best place to fly into to go see the Monarch Butterflies is Mexico City. I knew this yet somehow got my flight into Guadalajara. I guess I thought it was almost the same distance because when I looked on the map for the Town of Agangueo, where I needed to arrive, it seemed to me to be in the middle. Well, boy, was I wrong! From Mexico City it is a 3 hour bus and from Guadalajara it is a 6-7 hour bus! Besides my failed distance calculation I also picked Guadalajara because I had never been and flights were a bit cheaper. These reasons may also have swayed me but if you decide to go this route, make sure you have at least 5 days on the ground. I only had 3 full days!. Three days made this a very crazy trip because I decided to also not do all 7 hours in one day, instead I did 3 hours to the City of Morelia to stay a night and then the next day early off to the Mariposas, for a long 8 hours roundtrip in transportation day! Yikes. No clue what I was thinking here but I saw everything I planed to on the trip and was very pleased with my 4 hours in the forest hiking to see the colony and watching the Monarchs come alive with sunlight.
Be fair warned, Agangueo is not easy to reach and the Santuario is even harder. From Morelia I was just over 3 hours by bus…made longer when the driver passed my requested stop which made me run up to remind him and therefore I now had to walk a kilometer. Yeah! Once at the bridge where said bus should have stopped I grabbed a taxi all while hoping for the Angangueo bus to pass because taxi negotiation was going just ¨okay¨. I did take a taxi for more money than I wanted but later bargained down since this driver decided to do some errands along the way….ugg. Taxi is the most efficient way up and i was dropped off at the entrance without more walking, yippie! I paid, entered and hiked to the colony of mariposas monarcas which is about an hour walk into the mountains give or take depending on the crowds. If you get stuck behind groups it is very hard to pass and is best to enjoy the slower flow looking at nature.
Since I wasn´t on tour I could stay and watch them as long as I wanted. I stayed 2 hours! Tour groups only stay on average 15 minutes looking at the colony! I felt bad for the groups because the day I went it was cloudy and cold which means the butterflies don´t fly as much. They only fly when sunlight warms them up hence why I stayed so long in the cold…yes, 10,000 feet in Mexico on a cloudy day is cold…I had on a down jacket and wore gloves often! Over those 2 hours I had 3 sunbreak moments. The first time was very special and the last was the longest and most spectacular viewing. I was so happy I witnessed the monarch butterflies and was able to stay so long! I can only begin to imagine the spectacle on a clear sunny day…wow!
Finally, I hiked back down to the entrance, stopping at some viewpoints I had skipped on my way in because butterflies were more important…but also because it was cloudy so views were just ´okay´. Once back at the entrance I stopped to eat at one of the many little restaurants while those doing the ziplines buzzed by above me. Once I finished I walked the 2 kilometers out to the main road hoping for a bus but instead decided to hitchhike down to Agangueo to then catch the first of multiple buses back to Morelia. Leaving Agangueo I took a minibus to Hidalgo, walked over to the main bus terminal (different location a few blocks away) and was finally on a bus back to Morelia. Concluding a long yet very exciting day adventuring to see Monarch Butterflies.
Read more about the Migration here
More information on seeing the Mariposas here
Logistics and Transportation
Cost to enter Santuario Sierra Chincua $80 Mexican Pesos (I believe Rosario is the same cost)
Caution: Don´t touch the wings of the butterflies, it stops them from flying and will cause death. Leave dead butterflies on ground. Know, some on the ground look dead and are not, be careful.
From Morelia, bus Excelencia Plus takes you close to Agangueo. Hours are as early as 5 am and last bus is around 8 pm with trip time just over 3 hours (always double check hours before booking! as they might change). You can reach Agangueo 2 ways. From Morelia take Excelencia Plus bus to Ciudad Hidalgo and then take bus outside terminal to Agangueo or take same bus from Morelia to Zitacuaro and then a bus to Agangueo. The other option if you can communicate well is to take this last bus and ask to be dropped at the puente de San Felipe (de los Alzati) and then taxi up to Agangueo. If you do this, ask driver to take you directly to the Santuario or Sierra Chincua. Make sure taxi is less than 300 Mexican Pesos, otherwise they are ripping you off. However you get to Agangueo, know that the most efficient way up to the Santuario Sierra Chincua is by taxi. There is an occasional bus that goes up to the town of Tlalpujahua or you could try hitching a ride up too. Both of these last 2 options mean you will need to walk the 2 kilometers up to the entrance for the Santuario.
Safest is to return no later than 4:30 pm or 5pm so you can catch a 6 pm bus back to Morelia.
If you are coming from Mexico City there are buses that go directly to Agangueo and I believe it takes about 3 hours.
There is obviously the option of renting a car or taking tours too. I debated renting a car in Morelia but opted out last minute. Tour prices to see the butterflies were maybe $200 Mexican Pesos more than doing it alone (about $900). The only major downside to taking a tour was the time allotted to see the mariposas, if you decide on a tour be sure to pick a sunny day!
The Santuario has an option to ride a horse most of the way up to the butterflies for a cost but you will still have to walk quite a bit to reach the colony.
There is a camping area on road up to Sierra Chincua, just outside the park. Saw some sprinter vans and a tent as well. Believe it was free.
Information for experience in Valle del Bravo and how to get there, click here
Información en español: haz click aquí
Travel tips for Morelia:
- Visit Santuario de Guadalupe (incredibly stunning church!)
- Walk part of the aqueduct and see Las Tarascas fountain
- Watch a sunset near the cathedral
- Visit the Michoacan University library
- See the light show Saturday night (there are several, I went to the one in Plaza Valladolid)
- Eat gaspacho (found on the street behind the cathedral) More on Food
Travel tips for Guadalajara:
- Have a Tortas Ahogado
- Walk around Tlaquepaque neighborhood
- Walk around the centro to see the cathedral and meander the many plazas
- Visit the Government Palace (free entry)
- Visit Instituto Cultural Cabañas for some seriously cool art murals
- Bike on the Sunday ciclovia
- Travel out to Tequila for a day trip (tequila hop all day long)
- Don´t take Uber from the airport (best by taxi or bus..Uber works just might take forever to pick up…I waited an hour and had 2 cancel!)
3 thoughts on “Mexico and Mariposas Monarcas (Monarch Butterflies)”
One of my favorite stories of your’s to read. I could feel the Magic with you. Where’s the photo of the butterfly landing on your head?
No one told me it was still there…so i missed the opportunity…only realized later when I felt it fall off.
Was incited to the excitement of the adventure and beauty